Jetstar is the big discount airline in Australia, offering a lovely bare-bones fleet of Airbus jets with no food, no drinks, and no entertainment except what you pay for, with the exception of a single airline radio channel. They even managed to hack the video-on-demand system to make you pay for the videos. On domestic flights, they also do not expect you to bring baggage unless you specifically pay for it, which is the sort of thing you would hope they would advertise with big flashing lights when you buy a ticket; tacking on 20 kg of “last-minute” luggage at check-in hit us up for another $80 AUD.
From above, greenery abuts so closely against the edges of Sydney that the city looks as if it was cut out of the bush with scissors. To its south, the coast falls away to reveal stunning green waters bordered by golden sandstone cliffs, the ocean gradually coalescing to a deep and distant blue.
Melbourne is 1.5 hours southwest of Sydney, while the national capital, Canberra, lies between the two cities like a neglected middle child, invariably ranking lower on tour pamphlets than a hiking trip to the Blue Mountains or petting a koala at the zoo.
If Sydney is Toronto +33%, then Melbourne is Winnipeg x 10. Sprawling and green, Melbourne hunkers by the Yarra River as if crouched on a prairie. Its tall buildings tend to form into clusters, while Federation Square, constructed in a misbegotten attempt to enhance other downtown architecture in 2002, sucks the skyline back to earth with the elegance of a 3.2 -hectare military bunker.
Known in Australia—though, granted, nowhere else—as a centre of shopping and fashion, Melbourne feels like the “do your thing” city, where outdoor artists work pastel murals on the streets, buskers sit on benches with amplified guitars, and rowers ply the waters of the Yarra like something out of an Ivy League movie. The patio bars are just as packed as those in Sydney, but cafés are also open late, and at 9:00 p.m. Max Brenner’s still offers flavours of hot chocolate you can only dream about. North of the CBD, Lygon Street presents mile after mile of alfresco dining, filling late-night sidewalk like an 8:00 a.m. train platform in Ikebukuro, where greeters do everything but trip passers-by to get them to come in and eat.
Located in an expanse of gardens south of the CBD, the Shrine of Remembrance is a model of how to do a memorial properly. Constructed after the First World War and based on both the Parthenon and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, its tree-lined paths and broad, commanding symmetry bring to mind Taiwan’s Chiang-kai-shek Memorial Hall, though thankfully with more tasteful reservation.
Melbourne’s trams, however, were fated to remain a mystery. A free tram rounds the CBD at somewhat regular intervals, but other trams require you to “validate” a card when you get in. A local friend showed us how it was done when we arrived, and it looked so simple that we elected to walk everywhere from then on.
Phillip Island’s claim to fame is an adorable horde of “little penguins” who cross the beach every night at dusk. Roughly 90 minutes southeast of Melbourne, whatever tour you sign up for will inevitably drag you to a bunch of “typical Aussie stuff” on the way in an effort to kill time before the little guys come out. However, as one item on our “to-do” list was cuddle a koala, this turned out to be rather fortuitous.
In Victoria, it is actually illegal to handle a koala. It is perfectly legal in New South Wales, except that all the ads look like this:
CUDDLE A KOALA*
(*Koalas may not actually be cuddled)
No matter how prominently the word “cuddle” appears in the ad, you will not, in fact, be allowed to do any more than stand next to the koala and touch its fur—the reason being that not only do koalas have claws that can puncture you like an inflatable dinghy, they are also rather nervous.
One of our time-killing stops was a kind of miniature conservation park featuring a Licensed Koala Handler, in whose presence we were allowed to touch a koala. While the koala was distracted by a ewer full of eucalyptus, we paid a little extra to get our fill of fuzziness. Chisholm Education Centre, on the other hand, offered “free-range” koalas, which meant they were all asleep high in trees. The centre also touted its “koala-proof fencing”, which was essentially a very long, shoulder-high, old-fashioned radiator painted green. Koalas, it seems, are crap at climbing a ridged metal surface with a curved top.
We also stopped at Churchill Island Heritage Farm, a Pioneer Village-type locale with displays of sheep-shearing, whip-cracking and the like. Sheep-shearing looks a lot like sheep wrestling, with the figure-four leg-lock seeming to be the key technique for Ultimate Victory. Feeling the lanolin oil in fresh sheep’s wool brought back memories of a tam nailed to the top of a pole in my first year of engineering…
Australian tourist stops take the presence of danger rather blithely. Signs at Chisholm Education Center advised guests to “notify staff” if a certain venomous snake was spotted, neglecting to mention the procedure for that awkward interval between “spot snake” and “staff arrive”. I got welts on my arm trying out the whips at Churchill Heritage Farm, and it was only after about ten very close calls among passers-by that they decided it was too windy to be showing people how to throw a boomerang.
Immediately pre-penguins we stopped at the Nobbies, a lovely boardwalk-covered headland most notably punctuated by a rather large guest centre. A little over a kilometer offshore are Seal Rocks, home to Australia’s largest colony of Australian fur seals, which are entirely out of sight unless you pay for one of the viewing machines hooked up to a remote camera near the rocks. The astute visitor can, however, spot the occasional little penguin under the boardwalk or hiding in a hole in the cliffs.
The Nobbies are the only place where the little penguins can actually be photographed—and even there, it is only because there are no rangers about to stop you. At Summerland beach, no photography is allowed because flashes of light scare penguins, and if you scare penguins, they stop coming to the beach. People used to be allowed to take photos as long as they didn’t use their flash, but we all know how well this works. Even with the ban, you can still see the occasional flash going off from people competing for the Worst Espionage Agent Ever award.
The penguins are watched from one of two sets of concrete bleachers, with low-intensity floodlights coming up as the sun goes down. You can also pay a little extra for “penguins plus”, which offers a more private viewing area closer to the penguins. We sat off to the left in the bleachers, which seemed to be the less popular spot. Despite the warm daytime weather, jackets were very much required.
Perhaps because they are the smallest penguins in the world, little penguins are very nervous about crossing the beach. Roughly 33 cm tall, they are the only species native to Australia, and are actually not black, but blue. There is no cover on the beach, so they wait until dusk to cross to their nests in the dunes.
As the sun sets, little black spots begin to appear in the waves receding from the shore. One or two will waddle up a few metres before diving back to safety. Then a group of six to ten penguins will form a triangle that very timidly storms the beach. The first two groups get nervous and turn right back at double-pace. Finally working up their courage, they start to rush as they come between our two sets of bleachers, many stumbling as they go. One straggler suddenly finds himself alone, and rather than walk the last ten metres alone, he pulls an about-face and makes a fifty-yard dash for the waves. Just as it seems that the parade is ending, a platoon of forty appears, having successfully performed a clandestine hook manoeuvre sideways across the beach.
The return from the beach is half the attraction. Little penguins waddle inland under hundreds of metres of raised boardwalk, some travelling in queues that abruptly stop and then start again for no apparent reason. Rather than go straight home, many stop, chat, honk at one another, fight, and generally faff about, while signs in the parking lot advise drivers to check under their cars for penguins.
The other typical trip out of Melbourne is a southwestern jaunt down the Great Ocean Road to the 12 Apostles, a collection of freestanding limestone towers left behind by the eroding coast. With an even larger hunk of rock next on our agenda, however, we opted instead for a more low-key tour of the Yarra Valley to the northeast, which, when it isn’t busy burning up in a bush fire, produces rather a lot of wine.
In addition to a bit of tippling and a fantastic homemade lunch at Fergusson Winery, we enjoyed a guided tour through Healesville Sanctuary, where they gamely sent clawed birds flying low over our heads, and took a brief ride on Puffing Billy, an old steam train that has been refurbished and run entirely by volunteers. I also got to feel chuffed for spotting a lyrebird in the bush right after our bus driver told us about them.
Lyrebirds are chicken-sized brown birds with a handful of yard-long feathers curving up over their backs. They are known not so much for their looks, but for their unusual habit of imitating the songs of other birds—as well as pretty much any other sound they pick up, including car alarms, chain saws, and, in a brilliant flash of post-modern irony, the click of a camera shutter. Australia’s ubiquitous Cockatoos, on the other hand, are at the opposite end of the spectrum, majestic white parrots that sound about as pleasant as a belch in a megaphone.